What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - Raymond CarverIn What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver we have the theme of love and the difficulties that can come with trying to define (through language) what love is. Taken from his collection of the same name the story is narrated in the first person by a man called Nick and it is through his observations that the reader discovers how difficult it is to define what love is. The setting for the story is also important as it is during the main discussion (of what love is) that the reader realises how confined (or in the dark) the characters in the story are. Their restriction or confinement in the kitchen in many ways mirrors the restrictions or inadequacies of language to define what love is. On several occasions in the story Carver highlights to the reader the difficulty or inadequacies of language. There is the obvious example of Mel’s inability to define love despite on several occasions trying. Also Mel’s misuse of the word ‘vessels’ when he really means to say ‘vassals’, is also important. As again it suggests the difficulties of language. Despite both words being close in both pronunciation and spelling, they mean two different things.

There is also a lot of symbolism in the story. There is the fact that Mel is a cardiologist (heart doctor). This is significant as it brings a sense of irony into the story. Love would commonly be referred to as an affair of the heart and despite his attempts to understand what love is Mel at the end of the story is none the wiser in figuring out the elusive nature of love. He remains unsure for certain as to what love really is. Carver also uses symbolism to further suggest the difficulties in expressing a meaning or feeling when Terri tries to describe the restaurant and the food in the restaurant. She is unable to do so, all she knows is that it looks good from the outside. Though some critics might suggest that the difficulties incurred by Terri in describing the restaurant are due to the fact that she is drinking (and possibly drunk).

There is further symbolism in the story which may also be important. Carver appears to use alcohol to highlight the flow of conversation. When the bottle of gin is full the conversation is flowing but by the end when Mel spills his glass, a signal that there is no more gin, it also signals the end of the conversation. This could be important as it may be an example of Carver using alcohol as a rhythmic device throughout the story. It might also be a case that Mel (and Terri) have difficulty discussing past relationships without the aid of alcohol, using the alcohol to numb how they really feel. It is also possible that Carver is using light in the story as symbolism. At the beginning of the story the reader learns that the kitchen is filled with sunlight. Carver may be using the symbolism of light to suggest a clarity. However this sense of clarity fades later in the story just as the light fades in the kitchen and it becomes dark. Though it may also be a case that the loss of clarity may be caused by the fact that each character is drinking and if anything their thought processes are becoming clouded.

What is also interesting about the story is that despite Nick having no opinions on the matter (of what love is) and Laura remaining relatively quiet both do demonstrate the physical side of love by holding hands and touching each other’s legs underneath the table. It is also through Mel that the reader gets an insight into the extremities of love (or at least as perceived by Mel). Mel tells the reader that despite having once loved his ex-wife, he no longer either loves her or likes her. This dislike for his ex-wife is triggered by the fact that he has to pay her alimony. Also Mel tells the reader about Terri’s first husband, Ed. Even though he beat Terri, Ed told Terri he was doing so because he loved her. Also when she divorced him Ed used to stalk Mel and Terri and eventually because he couldn’t handle the breakdown of the marriage shot himself. Again this suggests the extremities of love, which in turn make it even more difficult to define what love is. For many readers Ed would have acted outside the commonly accepted boundaries of love.

Carver ends the story with symbolism too. Despite Terri suggesting she has some cheese and crackers she never actually gets up off the chair to get them for Laura. This lack of action (or resolving the fact that Laura is hungry) mirrors the inability of the characters to resolve or define what love is. It is also significant at the end of the story that Carver writes that Nick could ‘hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart.’ This is important because it again brings in the element of irony to the story. Love (as mentioned previously) is usually described as an affair of the heart yet at the end of the story none of the characters are any wiser, despite Nick hearing his and the others hearts beat. It might also be important that the final sound in the story is Nick hearing everybody’s heart. It highlights that they are not only alive but that they may very well be in love with their respective partners yet remain unable to describe or put into words their love. The fact that the story closes with the word dark (night has set in) is also significant as the darkness of the night mirrors the darkness that the characters are in regards defining what love is.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Often in the position whereby I can “teach” a Carver story in one or another of the classes I taught/teach, I usually forgo the teaching of these stories because I don’t know what to say about them. However, I decided to risk venturing forth with “What we Talk About” for reasons I can’t explain, but I’m glad I took an hour out to read this story. I have been telling my students that short stories invariably feature change, and this seems to “work” pretty well in all the stories assigned so far except for Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” wherein nothing seems to happen/there is no change, at least on the surface. The “problem” is dealt with at the train station, but is unresolved.

    Similarly, nothing seems to happen in “Talk About” and I was on the brink of saying to my students on Monday that this story is not really a short story, but rather it is a sketch/vignette, almost akin to the recordings of a camera depicting the “action” of this seemingly static story. Dermot’s explanation/commentary is an eye-opener. It is a short story in that while there is not so much actual change, there is a kind of recognition resulting from the spilled gin and the darkness in the room, though this, too, is inconclusive because the reader is unsure how this registers with the four characters.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lindy. I would agree with you there is an element of uncertainty at the end of the story. Just as the characters end the story in the dark (physically) likewise the reader too is left somewhat in the dark with there being no obvious sense of change, epiphany or moment of realization for any of the characters. Whether this was Carver’s intention, to leave the reader as much in the dark as the characters, I don’t know. Out of all the Carver stories I have read and posted about on the blog I do think this story is probably one of the more difficult ones to try and interpret or understand. Though it has been a long time since I’ve read the story occasionally I am tempted to try and re-evaluate my interpretation because I sometimes feel that there are still things in the story that I have not fully grasped or seen.

  • Four of them have been through tough time and bad (or unhappy) marriage, the narration and dialogues are full of tones of depression. The title that originally given by Carver was “Beginners”, ironically they all have more than one marriages, which obviously can’t be beginners in love. When they talk about love, they talk about divorce, fight, dead (even for the old couple). Mel said he doesn’t have to be drunk to talk about it, but in fact they all need alcohol, in order to talk about love. When the heart beating is clear and loud, everyone is already drunk. There is no theme in the story, it mirrors the people in Carver’s experience, particularly those who have suffered a lot in searching for true love, for e.g. Carver

  • In this story we have two pairs. One of them had been together for 5 years or so and there is a constant sense of tension in the conversation. They keep on interupting each other with spiteful remarks etc. The second couple are newbees. They have started dating recently (year and a half ago) and they still have butteflies in their stomachs. They keep on caressing each other and there is no sense of tension. Yet… So basically we have two couples in different stages of dating/joint life and they act accordingly

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ivan. I never thought about looking at the story from that angle. Defining both relationships as such by the length of time each couple have been with each other. It is an interesting way to look at the story.

  • Alejandro Inarritu, the director and co-writer of “Birdman” has incorporated irony and symbolism employed by Carver in this story, in his film. It’s interesting to see that Mel is utterly clueless about what true love is, though he is a heart surgeon (heart is associated with love). The central character of “Birdman”, Riggan Thompson (a washed out super hero actor) decides to prove the world that he is a genuine artist through Broadway by writing an adaptation of “what we talk about when we talk about love” by Raymond Carver. But Riggan, just like Mel, is absolutely clueless about what real love is. Through his ex-wife, the audience come to know that Riggan mistook admiration for love. And here he is, writing, directing and staring in a play in which the central theme is LOVE..!!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Sai. I have yet to see Birdman. Though it is on my list of films to see.

  • I’m trying to fill out a basic ‘five finger pitch’ for this story, just to grasp the basics of it. Apparently, every story can fit into this template. So that’s the genre, main protagonist, goal of the story, obstacle of the story and ‘twist’ of the story (what makes it different). I’m struggling with the last three and was wondering if anybody has any ideas.

    I thought the goal of What We Talk About might be ‘to undertsand love’, obstacle to be ‘the realisation that it is impossible to understand’ and the twist to be ‘the conclusion that love is temporary’.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I think that you may be right in all three assumptions. Though with the final one love is not only temporary but it is shown through actions. Nick and Laura being an example. How they show affection to one another throughout the story is a demonstration of love.

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